In November 2008, I made my first trip to Papoose Lake in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. That trip inspired my first blog post which evolved into Field Notes From Plant Explorations. This first post was more about geology than plants because of the unique geologic character of the Papoose Lake Basin.
This month, almost 15 years later, I returned to Papoose Lake to conduct vegetation surveys as part of our Klamath Mountains Vegetation Mapping Project. In many ways the basin is the same but in others changes are afoot. What follows are some reflections on 15 years of blogging through the eyes of a Klamath Mountain lake basin.
In 2010, I first found this tree while backpacking through the Trinity Alps Wilderness in far northern California. Just last week, thirteen years later, my son Sylas and I returned with tools to officially measure and nominate this tree. While points fell just short of the overall champion, it is the second largest foxtail pine known and the largest of the subspecies of the Klamath foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana subsp. balfouriana).
“Whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest of gales, this tree is ever found irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque and offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other conifer I know of.”
The following excerpt is from my book Conifer Country. I was inspired to publish it here after a recent trip with my son to visit and measure the Klamath Mountain champion foxtail pine. After this trip, the foxtail pine is his favorite tree species too 🙂
California’s endemic foxtail pines have established two esoteric populations abscinded by nearly 500 miles of rolling mountains and deep valleys. The species was first described by John Jeffrey near Mount Shasta in 1852 , which was most likely a population near Mount Eddy or in the Scott Mountains. Later, this species was discovered in the high elevations (9,000’-12,000’) of the southern Sierra Nevada. The ecological context of Klamath foxtail pines in the Klamath Mountains differs drastically from that in the Sierra Nevada due to the divergence of these populations in the mid-Pleistocene. Though separated over one million years ago, both subspecies exhibit a radiance and individuality for which I honor them as my favorite conifer.
With separation in space and time, divergence—including cone orientation, seed character, crown form, foliage, and even chemistry—has occurred between the two subspecies. Another reason for these variations are genetic bottlenecks that have been promulgated by spatially restricted microsite adaptations, particularly in the Klamath Mountains . Northern foxtail pines (var. balfouriana) are isolated on sky islands—local mountain tops and ridgelines—from 6,500’ to 9,000’ in the eastern half of the Klamath Mountains. By my count there are 16 isolated sub-populations each consisting of one to several isolated mountain-top populations, except in the Trinity Alps where they are locally common in the more contiguous high elevations. On these sites, proper geologic, topographic, and climatic conditions have offered synergistic alliances with shade-tolerant and faster-growing firs and hemlocks.
I learned about this project in 2014 and have been following it closely ever since. In late April, 2020 my friends Justin Garwood, Ken Lindke, and Mike Van Hattem (with other co-authors) published the first definitive paper on glaciers in the Klamath Mountains. While the news is bleak, their diligent research documents the changes in the Klamath for hundreds of years through the eyes of the highest peaks and watersheds in the range. Please enjoy the summary that follows.
Green plants are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize—making sugar from water and carbon dioxide. The world of heterotrophic plants is complicated but all have moved away from total energy production from photosynthesis toward obtaining organic carbon either directly from other living beings or through a parasitic relationship with a fungus. Heterotrophic plants include directly parasitic and mycotrophic forms. The conifer forests of the western United States nurture an exceptional diversity of heterotrophic plants and the Klamath Mountains may have the most heterotrophic plants in the western United States!
Part two of whitebark pine negative reports in the Trinity Alps Wilderness
As mentioned in my last post, part of last summer’s whitebark pine conservation assessment and mapping project involved predicting location where the species might occur but was not yet documented. While I found success with some predictions, others turned into negative reports with “ground-truthing.” One negative report was in the Trinity Alps Wilderness around Stonewall Pass, another was in the Foster and Lion lakes region where I based my prediction on the significant landmass above 7,500′.
Part of last summer’s whitebark pine conservation assessment and mapping project involved predicting location where the species might occur but had not yet been documented. While I found success with some predictions, others turned into negative reports with “ground-truthing.” One of these areas was in the Trinity Alps Wilderness around Stonewall Pass where I predicted WBP would occur because there is significant landmass above 7,500′.
The geology of the Stonewall Pass region is built from a majority of mafic and ultramafic rocks. Granite and Gibson peaks are themselves granite, but the remainder of the landscape is composed of serpentine, which makes survival difficult for many species. Interestingly, whitebark pine are found on the serpentine of the Scott-Trinity Mountains around China Peak and Mount Eddy, but it turns out they are absent from the Stonewall Pass serpentines. Whitebark’s absence on the granite of Gibson and Granite peak is most likely due to the size of the inhabitable area offered by the small granite plutons here as well as the increased competition from granite-loving species like mountain hemlock and Shasta fir.
Why, climb Mount Hilton in the Trinity Alps of course.
As I approached the trailhead the car’s outdoor thermometer read 28oF and, with the windows down, the iPod shuffled Rapper’s Delight for my auditory indulgence. I pulled into the large parking lot at Canyon Creek as the lone (semi-domesticated) representative of the human race. Donning hat and gloves, I hoisted my pack and climbed toward what I hoped would be a world-class penthouse suite. With Sugar Hill Gang resonating in my head–as other drift-less tunes have on previous trips–the lyrics seemed preposterously apropos as I progressed toward the named summit (hotel, motel, Mount Hilton…). What five-star resort could possibly compare to a perch on glacially polished granite–surrounded by sky, stars, and wilderness–with a forecast of continued high pressure and a hard freeze? None in my mind.
High above the headwaters of the Salmon River and Coffee Creek, the remarkable ascension of Packers Peak is surprising next to the seemingly superlative granite of the Alps. The peak is a pedestal on which to perch, understand, and enjoy the complex Trinity Alps Wilderness that surrounds you. It is a steep climb from Big Flat, at the end of Coffee Creek Road, to reach this vantage point; but if you are willing to climb the nearly 3,000 feet in just under 3 miles, you will be rewarded.
Gaining an understanding of geology and fire ecology
I had often pondered a high and extensive ridgeline in the middle of the Trinity Alps Wilderness from other mountain top vantage points on which I stood–at one point or another–in my adventures in the Klamath Mountains. It took me several years to realize this jagged range had its own name and many years more to actually get to this isolated place. Finally, in October, I climbed my way into the high country known as Limestone Ridge. I had read this extensive ridgeline (over 3 miles long) was one of the best examples of Karst topography in western North America. This summer, the spectacular Marble Mountain was my first introduction to Karst limestone landscape in the Klamath so I assiduously pursued a chance to see more. With those distant images and arresting words burned on my brain I was finally climbing–up–up–up–from Hobo Gulch in the Trinity River Canyon.
The day after Thanksgiving was dedicated to working off some calories. I woke up at 5AM and took off to Hobo Gulch Trailhead on the edge of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. After 14 miles of hiking, including a scramble at the end, Papoose Lake was achieved around 2PM. I spent the afternoon exploring the frozen lake and surrounding areas; settling down for a cold night I started a fire and cooked some gourmet sausages. Saturday morning I awoke — after a surprisingly warm night — to a thawing lake, 2 cups of coffee, and a glorious sunrise. I packed a day bag and climbed the southwest ridgeline.
The geological character of the lake is fascinating in that the southwest edge is a fault where granite — common in the high Trinity Alp — meets a serpentine rock type (more geology) also typical across northwest California; scattered in many of its mountain ranges. This trip was originally planned because my favorite conifer, the foxtail pine, favors serpentine outcrops at high elevations — I had wanted to get into this region of the Alps and search out some foxtails. Here I had elevation and serpentine — so I predicted that there would be a new grove of this rare tree for me to discover just on the south-face above the lake. Upon achieving the ridge, my hunch was correct. While, foxtail pines do grow on granite in the high Trinity Alps they are much more common, and groves more extensive, on serpentine.
I spent a glorious day exploring an exceptional forest of trees — growing with foxtail pines were whitebark pines, Shasta red firs, mountain hemlocks, and a few Brewer spruce. In the cirque that holds Papoose Lake there are 11 species of conifers. Along the entire trail one can identify 15 species. My final day, Sunday, I returned to the truck refreshed and exuberant.
I revisited this lake in September 2023. Read my new thoughts, 15 years later, here.
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Gary Robertson EMAIL: email@example.com URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garytrinity/ DATE: 1/31/2010 8:07:01 PM Informative commentary — great shots of your Papoose Lake trip. I try to get to Papoose every few years — one of my favorite Trinity Alps lakes. I’ve climbed the southwest ridge myself — whenever I cross-country from Papoose to the Russell Cabin Trail — that’s how I go. It’s a short but steep and very brush off-trail route. (The Russell Cabin Trail connects with the main North Fork trail at Backbone Creek just a short distance from the Hobo Gulch Trailhead.) —–
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Stephen Sikes EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org URL: DATE: 5/16/2014 1:57:25 PM Hi Michael – I’m curious if you recall the altitude at which the Foxtails began to emerge in the Serpentine soils. Do you recall if you found them below 7000′ at Papoose? —–
COMMENT: AUTHOR: Michael E Kauffmann EMAIL: email@example.com URL: DATE: 5/17/2014 2:24:27 PM Stephen- from Papoose Lake it is a significant climb to get to the foxtails. They are on the south-facing ridge, south of the lake. They may be north of the lake as well, but I did not climb into that area. South of the lake, as you see in the blog, is serpentine. The foxtails love this soil type and it is quite a spectacular stand here. They extend down slope from the ridgeline to an elevation I could not verify since I stayed high on this trip. Generally, foxtails in the Klamath Mountains live above 7,200′ but can be as low as 6,600′ depending on habitat. If you search them out – let me know what you find.